Hickey: Huge job ahead for Mariners' new coach

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by John Hickey

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on October 24, 2012 at 1:30 AM

No one wearing a Mariners uniform in 2013 has more of an uphill battle thanDave Hansen.

A two-time Mariner as an infielder and pinch-hitter, Hansen was named hitting coach Monday, replacing Chris Chambliss, who was let go at the end of another of a series of unproductive seasons for the offense.

In the past decade, the Mariners have put six regular and two interim hitting coaches through a thresher. Lamar Johnson, Paul Molitor and Don Baylor lasted a full season each. Jeff Pentland and Alan Cockrell both had multiple opening days in the job, but were fired mid-season.

Chambliss was the only one of the six to both last more than one season and to not be fired mid-season. Even so, the Mariners were terrible offensively under Chambliss, much as they have been under the rest.

Now Hansen, 43 and a 15-year career big leaguer known as one of the best pinch-hitters of his time, is being asked to turn that around.

It’s not going to be easy.

“The job is tough when the team is not hitting and things aren’t clicking,” said Hansen, a second-round draft pick in 1986 by the Dodgers who was the hitting coach in Los Angeles last year but was let go at the end of the season. “Teams look to the batting coach to move on, and not the players.

“I’m super-excited to get in front of this group of young, super-talented hitters who are hungry. They are ready to take their game to the next level, and I think I have things to offer them.”

Hansen, a Mariner in 2004 and 2006 who has always been a straight shooter, does have things to offer. He was never the most natural hitter, so his stance and swing and productivity were a kaleidoscope of working, tweaking and adjusting. He can teach that.

On the bigger issue of the Mariners’ young hitters – Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, Mike Carp, Jesus Montero, Casper Wells and the rest – it’s not at all clear that they are ready to take it to the next level.

Seager and Saunders made strides this season. Ackley, Smoak and Carp went backward. Montero, who didn’t have a big-league track record with which to make an accurate evaluation, was OK, but there were plenty of holes in his swing.

To think that the members of that group are on the precipice of great things is a sign of great optimism, but it flies in the face of recent history.

The Mariners advanced from 513 runs scored in 2010 the 619 runs scored in 2012, an increase of two-thirds of a run per game. But it’s not celebratory; the Mariners advanced in team batting from last in the American League to last in the American League.

In fact, Seattle has finished last in scoring for four consecutive seasons. Batting average, on-base percentage, home run production and a slew of sabermetric statistics give no suggestion that run production is ready to erupt in 2013.

In many of the essentials – drawing walks, moving over runners and hitting with men in scoring position, the Mariners have struggled. This is where Hansen feels he can make an impact.

“We need to create pressure on the defense,” he said. “We obviously need to take the necessary steps with the (hitters’) mentality  . . . and do the little things that create runs.”

It’s not a new tune. Chambliss, Cockrell, Pentland and others have talked the talk.

Hansen does have one ally, however. The Mariners are bringing in the fences from the left field corner to right-center, theoretically making Safeco Field an easier – well, a less-difficult – place to improve power numbers.

“How about that?” said Hansen, who hit .229 with four homers in 153 at-bats spread over two seasons with Seattle. “I just heard that they will reconfigure the outfield, and that can only be a good thing offensively.

“That will help some of the right-handed power hitters, for sure. For me, the elements of the park don’t change (the hitting coach’s job) that much. You still have to have an approach at the plate. But if we do those things correctly, the ball should carry out.”

That would be a welcome change, particularly for a pitching staff that has had to scrimp by on sub-standard offensive support for much of the last decade.

Hansen almost was asked to join the coaching staff under manager Eric Wedge in 2011, but Seattle went with Chambliss instead.

“It was really close,” Hansen said. “It was just between the hitting coach they had (Chambliss) and myself, from what I understand. At that time, I didn’t have, I don’t think, quite the experience they were looking for. I needed to go get that experience.”

The getting of that experience was rocky. He got the job in Los Angeles in the middle of the 2011 season. Things were going well through the middle of 2012. But when the Dodgers  attempted to beef up the offense with the additions of Henley Ramirez in July and Adrian Gonzalez in August, things imploded.

From the day Gonzalez landed in the Dodger lineup Aug. 25 through the rest of the season, Los Angeles averaged just 3.5 runs per game while hitting .254. In the process, the Dodgers went from playoff contention, two games out of first in the National League West, to not even a playoff afterthought by season’s end.

But the Mariners were intrigued. They were done with Chambliss, and Hansen showed them something, so much so that just hours after the Dodgers announced they were severing ties with Hansen, the Mariners called to start the courting process.

“Other teams were involved as the process went on, but Jack and Eric were persistent,” Hansen said. “They had been keeping an eye on me since our first interview two years ago. They just wanted to make it happen, and I was more than happy to do the same. I’m really, really excited to be back. It feels good they were tracking me and wanted me back real bad.”

What has to happen now is for Hansen to find the touch with a group of under-performing hitters. Odds are steep.

“I’m really, really excited to be back,” he said. “They are my No. 1 choice.”

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